Ice Network

Minnesota Morsels: Pierce, Zhou Hungary bound

Zhou aspires to compete at level of Hanyu, Fernández; Pierce hits stride
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After turning in solid performances at the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Vincent Zhou and Tyler Pierce hope to make their mark at the 2016 World Junior Championships. -Jay Adeff

Vincent Zhou has always wanted to skate with the big boys.

As a young child skating in Riverside, California, coaches had to practically pull him off the ice to stop him from trying to match older skaters, like 2011 U.S. silver medalist Richard Dornbush, jump-for-jump.

At age 15, he's still trying. Competing at the Junior Grand Prix Final in Barcelona in December, where he placed fourth, Zhou watched Yuzuru Hanyu and Javier Fernández practice. It filled him with ambition.

"They are absolutely amazing. They have such great technique. They are so in the zone, everything they do -- every movement," Zhou said. "They just really motivated me. I want to be up with them some day, so I just have to start training like them."

Zhou returned from Barcelona determined to land a quadruple toe loop. Less than a week later, he did.

"I never had a really good triple toe; I never thought I would get a quad toe," Zhou said. "I tried it, and I got it in four days, which is incredible for a quad."

"Vincent is a bright spot for U.S. men's skating," said Tom Zakrajsek, who has coached the skater at Colorado Springs' World Arena since last spring. "He has learned so much, so fast. He got the quad salchow at the end of July and then he got the triple axel the third week of October, and he's learned a quad toe since getting back from Barcelona."

Zhou showed off many of his newfound skills at the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, placing eighth after landing a triple axel in his short program and a triple axel-triple toe loop in his free skate, in addition to a second quad salchow in his free. He had hoped to do even more.

"My first quad salchow, I kind of flipped out of it, so I lost a lot of points for that," Zhou said. "Otherwise, I skated the free just like I've been training it, which was my goal coming into this competition.

"I feel excited, I guess, to have skated like that for my senior debut. Being out there with the big boys is truly inspiring," he added.

Zhou and U.S. bronze medalist Nathan Chen, who landed a combined six quads in his short program and free skate in Saint Paul, are slated to compete at the 2016 World Junior Figure Skating Championships in Debrecen, Hungary, March 14-20.

It's only natural Zhou is making the trip to Hungary with Chen. About 18 months Chen's junior, Zhou has moved up the ranks a half step behind him. When Zhou won the U.S. novice men's title in 2012, Chen won his first U.S. junior title. In 2013, Zhou won juniors, defeating Chen. Zhou sat out the following season due to injury, and Chen took the title back.

The two skaters shared the ice briefly when Chen's coach, Rafael Arutunian, brought his group to train at World Arena prior to the U.S. championships.

"It's always good to learn from people who have the stuff you don't," Zhou said of the experience. "We are really good friends."

In Hungary, Zhou hopes to show off two or three quads in his Godfather free skate, including a quad toe.

"That's the plan, because the junior men are so good, they are just like the championship men," Zakrajsek said. "The field is deep. Doing the quad toe will give Vincent that experience for when he moves up (internationally) to senior."

"Junior worlds will be my first competition to try (a quad toe). That's going to be a lot of pressure," Zhou said. "But I want to do it."

- Lynn Rutherford

Pierce hoping third time's the charm at junior worlds

Few skaters were happier in Saint Paul than Tyler Pierce, who landed triple-triple combinations in both programs to place fifth.

The 17-year-old from Whittier, California, has gone through a tumultuous season. In the summer of 2014, she left Tammy Gambill's group in nearby Riverside to train in Monument, Colorado, under Kori Ade. Last August, she returned to Gambill.

"She liked Colorado, but she missed being at home and she missed Riverside, I think," Gambill said.

Pierce had some solid results in both Riverside and Monument. In 2014, she won the U.S. junior silver medal. In 2015, she placed seventh in U.S. seniors, but her placements at junior worlds were disappointing (14th in 2014, 19th in 2015).

"We had long talks when she first came back (to Riverside) about what the plan was and how we were going to do it," Gambill said. "She worked with the fitness trainer and ballet teacher; she did mental training, the whole thing. And she just got back on track with technique that maybe she was more comfortable with."

After competing at the 2015 Golden West Championships in early September, Pierce was assigned to the Skate Canada Autumn Classic International in Barrie, Ontario, where she placed fourth. A pair of bronze-medal finishes at Ice Challenge and Tallinn Trophy followed.

Then, more change: Despite the international medals, Gambill felt Pierce needed a new free skate to really make an impression in Saint Paul. Cindy Stuart came up with "Danse Macabre."

"People came out to the rink to watch her do the program, and we got great feedback," Gambill said. "I knew if she hit the jumps, it was going to be a great performance at nationals."

Pierce obliged, landing six triples, including her first ever triple lutz-triple toe loop combination.

"I had such a rough summer and struggled all season to pull myself up," Pierce said. "Tammy really helped me overcome that, and I'm happy with how I finished."

The skater was nominated for a third trip to junior worlds, but she must post minimum technical element scores (TES) in junior international competition prior to the event. She has been assigned to the Bavarian Open in Oberstdorf, Germany, in February, where she will compete shorter junior versions of her programs.

"Cindy is going to fix the short program to make it all junior ready and put in a (triple) flip rather than the loop," Gambill said. "I think we are going to start training the triple lutz-triple toe in the short program as well. Cindy will also take out the choreographed sequence in the free skate."

Junior ladies are required to perform a flip in their short programs this season. Pierce's major mistake in Saint Paul was a fall on that jump in her free skate, but Gambill is not concerned.

"It was her first time trying triple lutz-triple toe in competition, and she nailed it, and she got excited and didn't really concentrate on the flip," Gambill said. "She actually has a beautiful flip."

Bradie Tennell, the 2015 U.S. junior champion, also 17, landed a triple lutz-triple toe in her free skate to place sixth in Saint Paul. She, too, will compete at junior worlds.

- Lynn Rutherford